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Ashes To Ashes: How David Bowie Put Major Tom’s Epitaph Into Song
In Depth

Ashes To Ashes: How David Bowie Put Major Tom’s Epitaph Into Song

Returning to the character that first brought him fame, Ashes To Ashes found David Bowie ‘wrapping up’ his past.

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Having released so many of the best 70s albums that he effectively shaped the entire decade, all eyes were on David Bowie to remain just as dominant a creative force throughout the 80s. When his first single of 1980 arrived as an unlikely cover of Alabama Song, a 1920s show tune penned by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, that only deepened the intrigue: what would a true Bowie original sound like in this new era? When it finally emerged, on 8 August 1980, Ashes To Ashes lit up the UK chart; Bowie’s fastest-selling single to date, it became his second homeland No.1. It was also a postmodern art-rock classic that saw him draw a line under all that had gone before as he entered yet another new phase of his career.

Listen to the best of David Bowie here.

“It was a mind bender; your brain tells you this isn’t supposed to work”

Having brought the “Berlin Trilogy” to a close with the previous year’s Lodger album, Bowie returned to the studios where he’d finished that work off, The Record Plant, in New York City, to begin recording its follow-up, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), in February 1980. Again with producer Tony Visconti at the desk, and his longtime rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, Bowie, with a clutch of extra cohorts, began to fashion a batch of songs which Visconti felt could be “a kind of Sgt Pepper”. Among these was a track given the working title People Are Turning Into Gold, whose off-kilter rhythm and innovative studio tricks mined a particularly rich seam of creativity. By the end of April, after moving to Visconti’s Good Earth Studios, in London, the song would be finished as Ashes To Ashes.

Writing about the Ashes To Ashes sessions for the A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) box set, Visconti explained why the tune was so attention-grabbing from the off. “The intro and interlude chord changes… is based on three bars of three chords, cycled five times,” he said. “David’s idea was to play a repeating four-bar melody over it played on piano. It was a mind bender; your brain tells you this isn’t supposed to work.

“Music is mathematics,” the producer added, “and David was often using odd bar cycles in his songs. To him this was familiar ground.”

Familiar to Bowie, perhaps, but less so to his drummer, who seemed foxed by Bowie’s request for him to invert an old ska beat. “Dennis had an incredibly hard time with it, trying to play it and turn the beat backwards,” Bowie confessed to NME in 1984. “So I did it on a chair and a cardboard box and he took it home with him and learnt it for the next day.”

“My tweaking created an entirely new sound”

The distinctive ping-ponging sound which bounced along on top of George Murray’s slap bass line was also achieved through unusual ends, after Bowie’s original plan to use a Wurlitzer electric piano fell through, and the Fender Rhodes he and Visconti sourced arrived broken. With Bruce Springsteen recording The River at the same studio facilities, Bowie and Visconti borrowed E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan to record the part on a grand piano which Visconti ran through an Eventide Instant Flanger effects box, with surprising results. “My tweaking did not emulate the Rhodes sound, but it created an entirely new sound instead,” the producer later noted.

Former Be-Bop Deluxe keyboardist Andy Clark was also on hand to add what Visconti described as “deep growls and an Andalusian trumpet motif” to the end of the song, with the producer giving him the lengthy outro to Memories Of A Free Festival, from David Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, as a point of reference. But Ashes To Ashes’ most impressive sonic innovation came from guitarist Chuck Hammer, a refugee from Lou Reed’s band known for a signature sound he dubbed “Guitarchitecture”.

Created by playing his instrument through a Roland GR-300 guitar synth, the orchestral swells that Hammer added became a crucial part of Ashes To Ashes’ unsettling atmosphere. “In those times it was unreal to watch a man strum a guitar and hear a thick orchestral string chord,” Visconti recounted. United in their opinion that Hammer had produced “a stunning sound”, Bowie and Visconti decided it still “needed something else” to top it off. Placing the guitarist’s amp on a landing in The Record Plant’s four-storey stairwell and recording it through microphones positioned above and below, they found the natural reverb they sought. “We layered the guitar/synth/strings twice,” Visconti said. “Lush!”

“When I heard him sing Ashes To Ashes, I got goose bumps”

Having worked up a backing track that sounded like an attempt to warp the fabric of time, Bowie penned lyrics which turned back the clock on his own body of work. With Visconti adding acoustic guitar and what he later described as “Japanese-inspired percussion” at the Good Earth sessions, Bowie laid down a vocal that opened with a portentous question: “Do you remember a guy that’s been/In such an early song?/I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control/Oh no, don’t say it’s true.”

Pop scholars would come to note the wink at Buddy Holly’s posthumously released 1959 single Peggy Sue Got Married (“You recall a girl that’s been in nearly every song”), but Visconti – and, soon, Bowie fanatics the world over – was immediately thrust back 11 years to the release of Bowie’s breakthrough single. “When I heard him sing the lyrics to Ashes To Ashes I got goose bumps,” the producer later said. “It was the character of Major Tom from Space Oddity brought up to the present.

If that earlier song had left Major Tom to his uncertain fate, floating aimlessly in his “tin can”, Ashes To Ashes revealed the true gravity of his situation. Having probed at the superficiality of fame in Space Oddity – “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear” – Bowie now took a deeper look at how celebrity can corrode a person. As if assuming the point of view of a media outlet all too happy to expose the downfall of a once celebrated icon, he prepared the listener for the next instalment in the story, speak-singing the titillating promise: “Sordid details following.”

“It probably came from my wanting to be healthy again”

What we learn is that Major Tom – sardonically nicknamed “the Action Man” – has become “a junkie/Strung out in heaven’s high/Hitting an all-time low”, with no money, no hair, “hoping to kick” his addiction. For Bowie, such disillusionment was the grim but natural development for his intergalactic explorer: “It’s a story of corruption,” he would note.

“Here we had this great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space and once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there,” Bowie explained to NME shortly after Ashes To Ashes’ release. “And that’s where I left him. Now we’ve found out that he’s under some kind of realisation that the whole process that got him up there had decayed, was born out of decay; it has decayed him and he’s in the process of decaying. But he wishes to return to the nice, round womb, the Earth, from whence he started.”

In search of “the most disastrous thing” that could befall Major Tom, Bowie turned to some of the struggles he himself experienced since rocketing to stardom. With his own well-publicised cocaine use in mind, along with the addictive qualities of fame itself, Bowie had Major Tom finding “solace only in some kind of heroin type drug, actually being that the cosmic space itself was feeding him with an addiction”, as he put it in a promo interview circulated to the press at the time of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’s release.

Reflecting on this over two decades later, Bowie told Mojo magazine’s Paul Du Noyer how he had used Major Tom’s story to express something of his own predicament. Noting that assuming the character for Space Oddity had enabled him to sing “merely about feeling lonely”, he now said of Ashes To Ashes, “The second time around there were elements of my really wanting to be clean of drugs. I meta-morphed all that into the Major Tom character, so it’s partially autobiographical… It probably came form my wanting to be healthy again.”

“It really is an ode to childhood, a popular nursery rhyme”

As he’d previously admitted to NME, he had also been fretting over “a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done” – as reflected in the song’s somewhat melancholy observation, “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue.”

Perhaps in part seeking to regress to a state of pre-fame innocence, Bowie sung Ashes To Ashes’ chorus to a nursery rhyme-like melody whose pleasant, sing-song catchiness stood at odds with the bleak content of the song itself – much like, Bowie noted, “1890s nursery rhymes which were all rather horrid, and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that”.

“It really is an ode to childhood,” he told NME. “A popular nursery rhyme.”

“Ashes To Ashes broke the record… It was epic”

Yet while Bowie channelled past art forms in order to present the modern-day predicament of one of his most famous characters, for Ashes To Ashes’ promo video he created a future-shaping clip which still stands as one of the best music videos of all time.

With its jump cuts between scenes – to Bowie, as Major Tom, locked in a padded cell; or sitting in a kitchen while appliances explode around him; or hanging suspended from tubes in an HR Giger-like setting; or dressed as Pierrot and sinking into a darkened sea – the video set the bar for promos in the MTV era while again playing with imagery from Bowie’s past; as Pierrot-Bowie walks along a beachfront with his fictional mother towards the end of the clip, the scene is directly referencing the rear sleeve of his 1969 album. (His costume had been designed by Natasha Korniloff, a Russian designer who had also created the costumes for that year’s production of Pierrot In Turquoise, in which Bowie had appeared in the role of Cloud.)

Not that the video was solely a meta effort. With his customary knack for spotting new trends, Bowie had enlisted four club-goers from London’s New Romantic scene to appear alongside him, among them Visage frontman Steve Strange, who also ran London’s New Romantic hotspot, the Blitz club. After visiting the hangout the night before the shoot, Bowie invited Strange, plus Elise Brazier, Darla Jane Gilroy and Visage fashion designer Judith Frankland, to travel with him to Pett Level beach, in East Sussex, at 6am the following morning. Masterfully asserting Bowie’s acknowledged influence on this new generation of pop icons (as well as Visage, the Blitz club would birth Spandau Ballet and Culture Club) while also ensuring he would catch a lift on their rising star, the video featured Strange’s gang marching solemnly behind Pierrot-Bowie as a bulldozer bore down upon them. Reciprocal influences would soon become clear: after Bowie saw Strange perform what seemed to be an unusual bowing gesture (the Visage singer was trying to stop his robe from getting caught up in the bulldozer’s blade), he made it a mannered part of his performances, both in live shows and future promo videos, including the one for Ashes To Ashes’ follow-up single, Fashion.

If the Giger references were “supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling… the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic… the organic meets hi-tech”, as Bowie put it to NME that September, the post-production effects – including colouring and picture-in-picture edits – were as cutting-edge as they came in the early 80s. Director David Mallet, who had previously shot videos for Lodger singles, and would go on to work with Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, as well as shoot the clips for Bowie’s Queen collaboration, Under Pressure, and for the Let’s Dance album’s title track, gave the beach its otherworldly black sea and pink sand effect by using the computer programme Paintbox to alter the colours, making “the whole thing look like some hallucinogenic dream”, as he told author Dylan Jones for the biography David Bowie: A Life. Recalling how the video became, at a cost of £250,000, the most expensive promo ever filmed, Mallet continued, “The norm for a video [shoot] in those days was a day, but Ashes To Ashes broke the record at three. There was a beach, there was a studio, there was a building site, you know, on and on. It was epic.”

It also completed Bowie’s vision for the song. “This one I storyboarded myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” he told NME. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say publicly that it is my first direction.” The accolades were quick to follow, with a Record Mirror readers’ vote placing both Ashes To Ashes and Fashion in a tie for best music video of the year; almost two decades later, at the end of the 90s, MTV called it the 58th greatest music video ever made.

“I was wrapping up the 70s for myself”

Though in the middle of a creative high, there came a more humbling moment when an elderly passer-by refused to let the shoot spoil a walk he’d taken with his dog. With the old man dawdling in front of the camera, an impatient David Mallet asked him, “Do you know who this is?” Indeed, the old man did, replying: “Of course I do! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.”

Recalling the experience years later, Bowie acknowledged, “That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place… I think about that old guy all the time.”

When Ashes To Ashes was released, however, with the Lodger track Move On as its UK B-side, and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’s opening track, It’s No Game (No.1), as the US flip, Bowie was once again being feted as the most innovative force in pop music. Like the single itself, Ashes To Ashes’ parent album also topped the charts in the UK, signalling what Melody Maker called Bowie’s “eerily impressive stride into the 80s”.

For Bowie, that was very much the point. In revisiting Major Tom at the start of the decade, he effectively bookended his career-making work with the character who had first brought him notice back in 1969. Now content to put down the masks and present himself as he was, Bowie would rarely return to character work again in his music – though this wasn’t quite the end for Major Tom. A reference in Pet Shop Boys’ remix of Hallo Spaceboy, a standout track from 1995’s 1. Outside album, kept a tab on him in the 90s, while the video for the Blackstar album’s title track pointedly featured an astronaut’s corpse. Finally, Major Tom had found rest.

Long recognised as one of the very best David Bowie songs, Ashes To Ashes was “the end of something” Bowie observed. “I was wrapping up the 70s really for myself, and that seemed a good enough epitaph for it – that we’ve lost [Major Tom], he’s out there somewhere, we’ll leave him be.”

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